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Dairy Defined: Dairy a Key to Your Plant-Based Diet

May 17, 2021

In diet, as in life, extreme approaches seldom achieve the best outcomes. That’s why vegan diets, which eschew all animal products, so often lead to negative outcomes – it’s an extreme approach to eating, just like other unbalanced diets that stack up too heavily on some nutrients and not others.

So while it could be surprising to some that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans would recommend dairy products as part of a healthy vegetarian eating pattern – as in “What? I should have animal products in my plant-based diet?” – a little examination shows it makes perfect sense. Vegetarian isn’t the same as vegan. And deciding to move toward a diet more heavily weighted toward fruits, nuts and vegetables doesn’t mean a consumer has to travel to the fringe – or miss out on dairy’s many clear benefits. If anything, it may make dairy an even more important part of the nutritional journey.

Here’s why dairy makes sense in a “plant-based” diet.

  • Milk efficiently delivers a lot of nutrients that are more difficult to gain through plant-based sources. Protein, calcium, vitamins A & D – those are just a few of the 13 essential nutrients dairy packages together in an easy-to-access way. Yes, plant-based diets have many of these nutrients, but not all – try getting adequate Vitamin B12 without animal sources. To fill in the gaps that would otherwise require a supplement, a glass of milk goes a long way.
  • This is especially true with proteins. Not all proteins are created equal, and animal-sourced proteins tend to be higher-quality than plant-based ones. Nothing against plants, but animal proteins are just more complete – they contain the full range of amino acids, and plant-based proteins do not. That’s biology, not ideology. Dairy products have protein in abundance, and to most people they taste better too. Just compare a glass of milk with an unsweetened almond-based beverage. The real dairy product will usually have as much as eight times as much protein as the highly processed, lab-concocted, misnamed “milk” that costs twice as much money and tastes like chalk.

But if that doesn’t convince you …

  • Dairy can help consumers consume less. Eat-more-plants-to-save-the-planet gets repeated so often that it’s conventional wisdom in many circles. But the picture’s more complicated than it looks, and not just because dairy is a leader in agricultural sustainability. For example, much of a cow’s nutrition comes from plants that human can’t consume, energy that’s then turned into dairy products that humans can digest. And when someone says, “eat more plants,” not enough attention is paid to the “more,” as in, if you want the nutrition, you need to eat more food. That takes resources from the planet and adds it to your waistline – a phenomenon also known as, “the worst of both worlds.” In the case of proteins, you would need to eat up to 30 percent more of some plant proteins to get the same high-quality protein as a dairy product. And hunting across the grocery aisle for the 13 essential nutrients milk has on its own. That can quickly become costly, time-consuming, and a source of future food waste.

All this makes dairy a smart option for the non-dogmatic plant-based consumer.

Diet is a highly personal choice, and in the 21st century those choices can be based on everything from simply how good food tastes to what economic opportunity that food may provide to what role that food may play in preserving the planet. Dairy meets all those consumer goals. That’s why dairy is recommended for anyone who may possibly benefit from their consumption – and that includes you, plant-based devotees.